Ortiz, a jolly good fellow


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Ortiz (right) with Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook
  • Ortiz (right) with Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook
Tony Adler's positive review aside, I was most excited to attend The Motherfucker With the Hat at the Steppenwolf so that I could finally see John Ortiz in a lead performance. A New York friend had been raving for years about this actor's stage work (he cofounded LAByrinth Theater with Philip Seymour Hoffman, with whom he's performed numerous times), and watching him in Silver Linings Playbook gave me a sense of what he could do with a substantial role. Playbook has received plenty of accolades for its ensemble cast, but the praise tends to overlook Ortiz, who strikes me as the film's secret weapon. In most films about a mentally ill hero, Ortiz's character, Ronnie, would be a cipher—the protagonist's most emotionally stable friend and stepping-stone to "normal" life. (See, for instance, Delroy Lindo's construction worker in Mike Figgis's overlooked Mr. Jones.) But Ronnie isn't too far from the edge himself, underscoring the movie's theme that sanity is never a given but the product of constant hard work.

Winning if a bit off-kilter, Ortiz plays Ronnie as if he's trying to stifle a hyperactive poodle under his shirt. He's practically childlike in his enthusiasm to be a good pal, a bit like the supporting cartoon characters whom Preston Sturges was so fond of creating. And like many of those characters (e.g., the gun-toting members of the Ale and Quail Club), Ronnie seems too benign to cause any lasting damage were he to lose his cool. He still has his own bag of tics, though, and one can sense Ortiz's theatrical background in the way he crams so many pathological tendencies into the intimate space of such a small man.

Ortiz achieves something similar in Motherfucker, playing an ex-con who wants to do right in spite of chronically screwing things up. Jackie registers as a lovable naif no matter how much he hurts the people around him—his characterization creates an interesting tension with the dirty street language of Stephen Adly Guirgis's script. As in Playbook, Ortiz projects something like resolute naivete amidst a volatile, even violent ensemble. What's different here is that Ortiz's character contributes to that volatility while claiming to be innocent of doing so. The result is a fantastic portrait of self-deception.


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